Irrigation water providers stay ahead of COVID-19 curve

Economy | Summer 2020
BY GEORGE OAMEK, PhD

Like most people in rural areas, my view of the COVID-19 pandemic has evolved. Initially, farming and early-season irrigation-related activities seemed to be relatively immune from impacts. Crops still had to be planted and animals fed and marketed, and farm input suppliers remained opened. Overall, it was mostly business as usual, with some inconvenient restrictions, but one felt assured the food supply chain would move as usual.

The pandemic started to hit home at about week four, when low demand dropped corn prices by 25% and independent cattlemen suddenly couldn’t find buyers for fed cattle. The packinghouse and processor cutbacks markedly increased anxiety levels in our community and have really highlighted rural economic vulnerabilities, as well as what jobs are most important to keep the wheels turning.

The above narrative leads to three seemingly unrelated points that tie this to irrigation economics. One is that the dip in commodity prices and livestock market volatility, hopefully temporary, could dampen near-term investment in irrigation capital. Anecdotal conversations have indicated that the large-scale ag portion of the irrigation industry is still busy, but as backlogs are worked through, next year may be light.

The second point is that livestock processing and assisted living facilities are associated with COVID-19 hotspots, and they are big businesses in rural America. As isolated and safe as we thought we were, we’re just as vulnerable as our urban neighbors. This leads to a third point, which is that some of the larger irrigation water providers made these same observations long before me and have taken actions to get in front of the crisis, although they might modestly state they wished they had acted sooner.


As isolated and safe as we thought we were, it turns out we’re just as vulnerable as our urban neighbors.


Irrigation system operations appear to be naturally socially distanced, so when approaching two of the larger providers in the Great Plains area, Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, about the pandemic’s impact to their operations, I didn’t expect a lot. Wrong, for sure. True, most of the field operations and construction projects don’t involve close personal contact, but everything else involves people and is exponentially harder (my term, not theirs). Independently, both entities implemented nearly identical response policies that may have initially been viewed as common sense, but now they could be defined as COVID-19 best management practices. Fortunately, neither entity has yet to experience an outbreak or employee testing positive.

In general, these best management practices have included

  • remaining open as essential businesses; however, the offices were closed to the general public and were available for electronic communication and individual appointments, as necessary.
  • complying with social distancing guidelines.
  • conducting daily work planning meetings virtually rather than in person.
  • moving tasks and meetings out of the office and allowing employees to work from home.
  • allowing employees to use unscheduled time off if they fear they have been exposed.
  • eliminating or minimizing carpooling for official business travel and less sharing of trucks among employees.

Both districts noted that the pandemic is ongoing and how things adjust during the period between curve-flattening and a vaccine, and beyond, is highly uncertain. No one yet knows what a post-COVID workplace might look like.

George Oamek, PhD, is an economist with Headwaters Corp. and is also on the staff of the Platte River Recovery Implementation Program’s executive director’s office.
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